Theta Phi Alpha is 103 Years Old Today!

The World War II work done by sorority women is an interest of mine. Veronica Lucey (Conley), a Boston University Theta Phi Alpha, served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. She went on to earn a Master’s degree from Yale University and later earned a Ph.D.  In the Fall 1960 Yale Nursing School Newsletter, it was noted that she had served for “the past twelve years secretary of the American Medical Association Committee on Cosmetics, has been named director of the new A. M. A. Department of Nursing, which will be in liason with National Nursing Organizations.” I found a reference to her in a 1962 newspaper article; she spoke out against the dangers of tanning, in a time when precious few were speaking out about the dangers of too much sun on unprotected skin. 



On August 30, 1912, Theta Phi Alpha was founded at the University of Michigan. Although founded on August 30, Theta Phi Alpha celebrates Founders’ Day on April 30, the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena.* St. Catherine is the patroness of the organization and her motto, “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring, ” is Theta Phi Alpha’s motto as well.

At that time Theta Phi Alpha was founded, Catholics were not always welcome in the other fraternal organizations on campus. Moreover, the University of Michigan is likely the only state university which can count a Catholic priest among its founders. In 1817, Father Gabriel Richard was a co-founder of the Catholepistemiad of Michigania which later became known as the University of Michigan. He served as its Vice-President from 1817-21. In 1821 he was appointed to the Board of Trustees and served until his death in 1832. So, it is therefore interesting to note the Catholic connection between the Catholic sorority and the state university founded by a Catholic priest.  When Theta Phi Alpha was founded, the Catholic hierarchy was of the belief that Catholic women should be attending Catholic colleges and universities. Giving Catholic women the opportunity to join a Catholic sorority could provide an opportunity to keep them close to their Catholic roots at a secular institution.

In 1909, Father Edward D. Kelly, a Catholic priest and the pastor of the university’s student chapel organized Omega Upsilon. He believed that the Catholic women at the university should have the opportunity to belong to an organization  that “resembled the Catholic homes from which they came.”

After Father Kelly left campus and became the Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit, Omega Upsilon was struggling.  There were no alumnae to guide the organization. Bishop Kelly’s vision that the Catholic women at Michigan should have a place to call their own was still alive even though he was not on campus. He enlisted the assistance of Amelia McSweeney, a 1898 University of Michigan alumna. Together with seven Omega Upsilon alumnae, plans were made to establish a new organization, Theta Phi Alpha.

Theta Phi Alpha’s ten founders are Amelia McSweeney, Mildred M. Connely, May C. Ryan, Selma Gilday, Camilla Ryan Sutherland, Helen Ryan Quinlan, Katrina Caughey Ward, Dorothy Caughey Phalan, Otilia Leuchtweis O’Hara, and Eva Stroh Bauer.  Seven of them were Omega Upsilon alumnae and two were undergraduate members of Omega Upsilon.

Theta Phi Alpha remained a local organization until 1919 when the Beta Chapter was formed at the University of Illinois. In addition, chapters at Ohio State University, Ohio University and the University of Cincinnati were chartered that year.

In 1921, Pi Lambda Sigma was founded as a Catholic sorority at Boston University. On June 28, 1952, Pi Lambda Sigma merged with Theta Phi Alpha. Its members at Boston University and the University of Cincinnati became members of the Theta Phi Alpha chapters on the two campuses. The chapter at Creighton University became the Chi Chapter of Theta Phi Alpha in the fall of 1952 and the Quincy College chapter became the Psi Chapter of Theta Phi Alpha in 1954.

Today, just as other organizations have accepted Catholic women, Theta Phi Alpha is open to women of all religions. 

Bishop Edward Kelly as a young priest. He was in his 50s when he helped found Theta Phi Alpha.

Bishop Edward Kelly as a young priest. He was in his 50s when he helped found Theta Phi Alpha.

** Saint Catherine was canonized in 1461. From 1597 until 1628, the feast of Saint Catherine of Sienna was celebrated on April 29, the date she died. In 1628, due to a conflict with the feast of Saint Peter of Verona, hers was moved to April 30. In 1969, the Catholic Church reinstated her feast date as April 29. 

© Fran Becque,, 2015. All rights reserved. If  you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest

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